I’m almost feeling sorry for Fred the Shred. ‘Humbling of Mister Godwin’, mocked the Daily Mail; ‘Goodwin is shredded’ (geddit?) bellowed the Daily Telegraph; ‘Once A Knight Fred’, echoed the Sun, a newspaper always keen to win the most imaginative pun stakes.
It’s more than tempting for the left to jump on this populist bandwagon. After seething with anger as those who had nothing to do with the crisis have been expected to pay for it, finally, one of the those responsible for the current catastrophe has been held to account in some small way.
But this is where the left should have a different approach to the right. The crisis was not caused by a few “bad eggs”; the odd greedy banker who can be treated as a fall guy, and then we can all move on. It was a system – not a few individuals – which plunged the world into economic catastrophe. This is a crisis of unfettered capitalism, red in tooth and claw, not the unfortunate consequences of some cock-ups by the likes of Fred Goodwin. We forget this at our peril.
I’ll give you an example: James Dyson, a businessman who gave his name to the pioneering vacuum cleaner. He was once hailed as leading a renaissance in British manufacturing, until he shut his British factory down and upped sticks to Malaysia in 2003. It’s not because he’s a bad person, or morally questionable: it’s because capitalism is about making profit, rather than putting the good of society first.
In short, a good slogan could be: “Socialism, it’s nothing personal.” The left stands in opposition to the way society is currently structured, not to the fact there are greedy or selfish individuals running the show.
Apologies for quoting myself, but in the introduction of my book Chavs I wrote: “We are all prisoners of our class, but that does not mean we have to be prisoners of our class prejudices.” I could be accused of hypocrisy here: after all, like others, I’ve railed against the fact that we currently have a government of multi-millionaires, and the fact that Parliament is full of middle-class professionals. That’s not to say the well-heeled have no place in politics whatsoever: but unless working-class people are properly represented, their interests will not be properly championed (as indeed they’re not). When I asked Hazel Blears why New Labour had let 5 million people languish on social housing waiting lists, for example, one reason she gave was that there simply hadn’t been anyone sufficiently interested in housing. Yet if there were people in Parliament who’d actually experienced the housing crisis, the odds of something being done about it would dramatically increase.
It should be how we understand politics, too. Some on the left offer a lazy critique of New Labour, effectively arguing that the Labour leadership swung to the right in the mid-1990s because a coterie of right-wingers (led by Tony Blair) made it that way. But New Labour was really the product of a whole range of factors: the rise of the New Right, the battering of the labour movement in the 80s, repeated electoral defeats producing massive disorientation and desperation, and the capitalist triumphalism that followed the end of the Cold War.
It’s easy, too, to castigate Ed Miliband personally for the concessions the Labour leadership has made to the Tory cuts agenda. But, again, it is in large part a product of the weakness of the left (which barely exists as a coherent political force).
That doesn’t mean individuals should not be beyond criticism: after all, we’re not all robots – we all have agency. Attacking a politician for hypocrisy is completely legitimate. For example, I wrote a pretty blistering attack on Liam Byrne on LabourList back in January. But it was a political, rather than a personal point: if you demonise some of the poorest people in society who receive money from the state while wrongfully claiming far larger sums yourself, then you should expect to face accusations of hypocrisy.
But because the right believe that the left is motivated by personal hatred towards those from privileged backgrounds, there’s nothing they like more than going for “posh” lefties. If you’re from a middle-class background or above and have anything other than a commitment to naked self-interest, then you’re a hypocrite, or so this line of attack goes.
Sometimes this is taken to absurd lengths. For example, one senior right-wing journalist attempted to pressure his fellow columnists to write a piece about the fact my ex-boyfriend was privately educated. I don’t mind right-wingers taking pot-shots at me – it’s what I expect – though I do object to others being dragged into it; at the time, I had to explain to him that he might be about to be publicly outed while he was being treated for cancer. Unpleasant, but the point that the journalist was trying to make was – “oh look, here’s a left-wing journalist who rages against privilege, but look who he’s sleeping with”.
My whinge aside, there’s always been a long tradition of people from relatively privileged backgrounds in the ranks of the left, such as George Orwell and Tony Benn, for example. And as long as they don’t crowd others out, and make sure they defer to working-class experiences, then there’s nothing wrong with it.
Above all, the left’s beef is with a system that is as unjust as it is irrational. Taking pot shots at the odd banker, or those who had no say over which school they went to, misses the point. After all, socialism is nothing personal.